Fundamentalist Distortion of Scripture Regarding Women’s Roles

Let me first make the general point that one can support just about any position one wants to take by taking a verse here and there from Scripture and putting them together.
See Joe E. Lunceford, Biblical Women—Submissive? (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009)

By Joe E. Lunceford
Religion Department
Georgetown College
July 2010

This is a subject upon which several books could be, and have been, written. I cannot attempt anything like a comprehensive examination of this topic but will limit my focus to a few of the more prominent ways in which I have observed fundamentalists to misuse Scripture, particularly in relation to the status of women and their role in the church.

I will begin with a discussion of irresponsible proof-texting in order to make the Bible say what one wants it to say. Let me first make the general point that one can support just about any position one wants to take by taking a verse here and there from Scripture and putting them together. A classic example which came to my attention some fifty-five years ago is to put together “and Judas went out and hanged himself,” “go thou and do likewise,” and “whatsoever thou doest, do quickly.” All these words come directly from the Bible, but I doubt that anyone would accept this as a mandate that he/she should go out and hang him/herself right away!

One of the most often used proof-texts is Paul’s statement (apparently) that women should keep silent in the church (I Cor 14:34). [I added the word “apparently” because I think there is reason to suggest that Paul is quoting these words from the Corinthian church’s letter to him (See 1 Cor 7:1) and refuting it in 14:36 with the words, “Has the word of God come to you (men) only?”] The word translated “only” is a masculine plural pronoun in the Greek text.

Whatever their source, these words from 1 Cor 14 settle the issue concerning women’s roles in the church for those of a fundamentalist mentality. It is to be a silent one. For those of this mind set, it is unnecessary to look at other texts to see if a different idea is expressed. In this case, we do not have far to look. All we have to do is go back to 1 Cor 11 to see Paul giving instructions as to how women should dress when they prayed or prophesied. To pray and prophesy and keep silent all at the same time is a pretty good trick. Further, I have often wondered if those who take this position ever consider how many Sunday schools would have to close down if the female teachers were removed! In order to maintain the position that women should keep silent in the church, they would have to make a distinction between Sunday school and church—a highly questionable distinction in my judgment.

I have observed through the years that those who use the proof-texting approach and take the texts literally are highly selective in what they take. A seminary classmate of mine related a story to me that vividly reflects this point. A female preacher was invited to preach at his church on a certain Sunday. After the service an elderly male approached her and very condescendingly said, “Sister Jones (not her real name), how do you handle the Scripture that says women should keep silent in the church?” Without batting an eye she replied, “The same way I handle the one that says ‘Greet the brethren with a holy kiss!’” End of conversation! And, just for the record, Paul wrote the command to greet one another with a holy kiss four times (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:19, 2 Cor 13:12 and 1 Thess 5:26.), whereas the command for women to keep silent (whatever the source of those words) appears only once. The usual response is that the kiss of greeting was just a cultural matter in the first century. Precisely—and so was the command for women to keep silent in the church.

Another favorite passage used to subordinate women is the creation story and the argument that the male was created first, and only the male was made in the image of God. This depends upon which creation story one reads. It will hold up to some degree for the second creation account (Gen 2:4-23) but crumbles under the first (Gen 1:1-2:3). Genesis 1:27 reads “In the image of God he created him, male and female he created them (emphasis mine).

I will mention just one other passage that is often cited as mandating the submission of women to their husbands, and hence a secondary role in both the home and the church. Ephesians 5:21-23, and particularly the words “Wives, be submissive to your own husbands as unto the Lord,” is often cited as a proof-text that wives are to be under the authority of their husbands. However, the preceding verse gives a very different picture. Verse 21 reads, “Be submissive to one another out of reverence to Christ.” (emphasis mine) Verse 22 is a part of the same sentence. For every Christian to be subject authoritatively to every other Christian would lead to chaos. The submission in this passage is submissiveness to the needs of every other Christian, and submission of wives to husbands is just a sub-category of the submission of all Christians to one another.

Based upon the same passage, the idea of male headship gets a lot of press in fundamentalist circles. However, Bilezikian1 and others have demonstrated that the word arche (“head”) has the basic meaning of “beginning” or “source” and probably does not have the connotation of authority in any of the passages in the New Testament in which it is used. Furthermore, in this passage Christ’s headship of the church is presented in terms of his giving himself for it, not his ruling over it with an iron hand.

A second way in which fundamentalists distort Scripture in regard to women is to ignore or twist to suit their ends evidence from church history as well as Scripture. With regard to the former, Ute Eisen has conclusively demonstrated that in the first three centuries of the Common Era women held every title in the church that men held.2 Her evidence comes primarily from inscriptions on tombstones, city walls, etc. (which, by the way, are notoriously difficult to change!) Then there is the tired old argument that Jesus chose twelve males as his disciples, and thus showed that he wanted to continue the patriarchal system. A Roman Catholic nun of my acquaintance was heard to say, “Jesus chose twelve men to be his disciples, and God Almighty does not make mistakes.” I agree to the truth of both propositions. However, let us press the argument a bit further. Jesus chose twelve Jewish males to be his disciples. If maleness be a qualification, then how does one escape the logic that being Jewish would be one as well? Furthermore, let us not be too hasty in concluding that Jesus had no female disciples. I realize fully that when we examine the biblical text we read more about the twelve male disciples than any others. However, there is one text which calls into question whether the twelve male disciples were the only ones Jesus had. In Luke 8:1-3, we find these words: “And it came about soon afterwards, that he began going about from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God; and the twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others (emphasis mine) who were contributing to their support out of their private means” (NASB). A careful analysis of this passage clearly shows that Jesus had a number of female disciples who both went around with him and were financially supporting his ministry. Why is it that we hear so little about these disciples? The reason, simply put, is that the society out of which the scriptures came was thoroughly patriarchal. All the biblical writers were male, as far as we can tell. The fact that we get even one brief glimpse into the female disciples of Jesus makes a strong case for divine inspiration, in my judgment. This statement creates the necessity for me to deal in some measure with the issue of divine inspiration, which I take up below.

A primary way of distorting Scripture in relation to women’s roles is to either change female names to male names and/or to explain away the role attributed to a woman. In the course of my research for my recent book,3 I found half a dozen or more instances in which a female name was changed to a male one. The most prominent one was the apostle Junia, mentioned in Rom 16:7. (The earliest manuscript of Romans, Papyrus Manuscript 46, has Julia instead of Junia, by the way. It has been argued that these are shortened forms of the name Julianus or Junianus. So far, no one has found a single example of Junia as a male name, however, whereas 250 examples of it as a female name have been found in the area of Rome alone!4 Junia was recognized as a woman by Origen, John Chrysostom, and Jerome. Chrysostom, who was by no means known as an advocate for women’s rights in the church, conceded that this woman was in fact an apostle.5

Another angle to the discussion of Julia/Junia is to argue that she was not an apostle herself but only a person held in high esteem by the apostles. That argument has been thoroughly exploded by recent feminist scholarship. Aida Besancon Spencer, for example, points out that “the preposition en always has the meaning of ‘within,’” and that “the meaning ‘by’ would be rendered by prepositions signifying ‘with,’ such as para or pros.”6 Keener summarizes the issue well in these words: “Those who favor the view that Junia was not a female apostle do so because of their prior assumption that women could not be apostles, not because of any evidence in the text.”7

In addition to the apostle Junia/Julia, Rom 1:1 mentions Phoebe the diaconos of the church at Cenchrae. Diaconos is the direct antecedent to our word “deacon.” However, until the recent publication of the NRSV it was translated “servant” in Rom 16:1. I won’t argue the translation, for that is what diaconos means. I will, however, challenge this translation on other grounds. In the KJV, this word appears twenty-two times. It is translated “minister” eighteen times, as “deacon” three times, and only in Rom 1:1 as “servant.”8 Why was it so translated in this one passage? Male chauvinism strikes again!

A further point worth noting in this passage is that Phoebe is referred to in the next verse as “a prostatis of many, and of me as well.” Unfortunately, this word appears nowhere else in the New Testament, so we cannot compare usage of it in other passages. The word is derived from the verb proistemi an most literally means something like “one who stands before.” In secular Greek, it is used of governors, kings, military commanders, et. al. In extant literature, it has one of two usages: leader or wealthy benefactor.9 The innocuous translation “helper” that we find in the KJV is inexcusable in this passage in my judgment..

While, as I noted above, we have no other usages of the noun prostatis in the New Testament, we do find the verb used a few times. Revealingly, it appears four times in 1 Tim (1:4, 5, 12, and 5:17) and in each case it is routinely translated “rule.” It also appears in Rom 12:8 and 1 Thess 5:12 with the same significance. This evidence strongly suggests that the noun form should be translated accordingly. Phoebe was a ruling official and/or wealthy benefactor of the church at Cenchrae.

Strongly undergirding all these ways of distorting Scripture lies a faulty idea of inspiration. The word for inspiration in Greek is theopneustos, which most literally means “God-breathed.” I doubt that even the most ardent literalist would argue that God exhaled one day and the Bible came out! A doctrine of divine inspiration which denies the human element involved may be as wide of the truth as one that denies the role of God. The biblical writings reflect the personalities, circumstances, vocabulary, etc. of the human writer just as surely as they reflect divine inspiration. For the fundamentalist, however, inspiration takes on more the character of divine dictation than divine inspiration. This leads to the false equating of words of Scripture with Word of God. Once that equation is made, the Bible becomes a hopeless maze which no human can navigate. Let me cite just a few examples: Compare the parallel accounts of the census taken by David in 2 Sam 24 and 1 Chron 21. The former passage says the anger of the Lord incited David, whereas the latter says Satan prompted him. There are also several other factual discrepancies in these two accounts. Consider Eccl 3:19-20, which in the RSV reads, “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity.” If we literally interpret those words as Word of God, we throw out Heaven and Hell all in one fell swoop! Any sane approach to such a passage as this must take into account the fact that human understanding of God and the way God works varies with eras of time and particular circumstances.

Another example is the account of the Babylonian captivity. Second Kings 24:14-17 lists the numbers of 10,000, 7,000, and 1,000 as taken to Babylon in two deportations of Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah 52:28-30, on the other hand, gives the figures as 3,023, 832, and 745 in three deportations, for a total of 4,600. Another such example is the account of the Jews who returned from Babylon. Both Ezra 2 and Neh 7 record by family name the number of these. Both accounts give a total figure of 42,360 (Ezra 2:64, Neh 7:66). There are twenty or twenty-one discrepancies in the numbers of those who returned from a particular family, and neither list comes close to adding up to 42,360. In a few places, we find variations of a family name and cannot be certain whether it is just a variation or a different family name. There is no way to harmonize factually these passages. Examples such as these could be multiplied ad infinitum, but surely these are sufficient to demonstrate to any thinking person the hazards of equating words of Scripture with Word of God.10


1Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.

2Ute E. Eisen, Women Officeholders in Early Christianity.Translated by Linda M. Maloney. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000.

3Joe E. Lunceford, Biblical Women—Submissive? Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009.

4For a full discussion, see Rena Pederson, The Lost Apostle. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006; Lunceford, Biblical Women—Submissive? 125-27.

5See Oxford Companion to the Bible, s.v. “apostle,” and “Junia.”

6 Aida Besancon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985, 102.

7Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministries in the Letters of Paul. Peabody: Hendrickson, 19 92, 242.

8See Richard and Joyce Boldrey, Chauvinist or Feminist: Paul’s View of women (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 20, n. 4.

9Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. proistemi.

10For those interested in such issues as I have touched upon here, I highly recommend Bishop John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (Harper San Francisco, 1991) and his Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Gospels with Jewish Eyes (Harper San Francisco, 1996).

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